The feeling of walking through a portal is described differently by every walker. When Talis first joined, Rewi said that it was like walking through fields of greenery and getting caught in the brush. Another, a girl named Enata related it to getting caught in a spiderweb. Talis always thought it felt like walking underwater. A resistance, yet one that, with resolve would only serve to make one stronger. Yet even this didn't accurately describe how euphoric Talis felt when she entered a new world.
To Talis, every new world was a new adventure. Somewhere she could have firsts and be the first. As she stepped through the cold blue light she felt that sensation again and it made her heartbeat as fast as a hummingbird's. The thought of what this world could be and what it would mean to her to be the one to save her world made her giddy with anticipation.
Kloe led the way in front of the group through the glowing light of the portal, and as they emerge on the other side Kloe let out a loud grunt.
"Ugh, what is that smell?" Kloe exclaimed.
Talis felt it overwhelm her senses as the stench of rotten eggs filled her nostrils. Talis held back her gagging, but Elei immediately threw up onto the hard rocky ground.
Kloe shook her hands in front of her face as if trying to fan the smell away. Her spear and shield extinguishing for a moment as she loses her concentration.
"Sorry, that was…" Elei started, but doubled over instead, vomiting a second time.
"Elei! Ugh, gross!" Sida shouted as she took large steps away from him and turned dark, blending in with the vast emptiness.
Talis pulled her pack around and pulled out a red cloth which she tied around the back of her head and pulled tight around her mouth and nose.
"Need that light, Kloe, can you focus?" Talis beckoned stepping forward to take her side. "Wherever we are, it's dark and damp." Talis looked down and saw vomit on her boots. "Remind me to thank Natia for the footwear."
"Sorry." Elei whimpered.
Kloe lit up her Tatu and the weapons reappeared in her hands casting a faint glow that shone a light no more than an arm's length in front of the group.
"Hmm… it's not so bad." Kloe remarked as they look around.
"It's a cave." Talis stated. She stepped away and extended her hand forward to touch a wall. The stone was cold to the touch and she pulled her hand back. She looked back to the group and groaned.
"Lapo," Talis cursed. "we forgot to make one of you our scribe."
"Traditionally isn't it the healer?" Elei asked. "I can do it." He pulled at the strap on his backpack and brought it down over his left shoulder. Opening the pack, Elei took out some loose papers and a graphite rod.
"Thanks, Elei," Talis grinned watching the young man's enthusiasm. "let's start with the basics. Can you walk and write?" Talis found a jutting stalagmite fastened hard to the ground and wiped her boot on it to get Elei's sick off.
Elei nodded. "Yeah, I can do that."
Following Talis's lead, the others all took out scarves and affixed them to themselves over the mouth and nose.
"Feel free to shout out what you see Sida, Elei transcribe what you can. Use shorthand when possible." Kloe told the two greeners.
"Well, it's dark." Sida started.
"And damp." Talis finished. "Not many caves left on Erridium, so this is fairly foreign to me. There are rocks that are jutting up from the ground as well as down from the ceilings which look to be just about thirty feet above our heads. What are those called again?"
"Stalactites and stalagmites." Sida stated, indicating the rocks growing from the ceiling first then the ground.
"Any sign of life?" Elei asked as he looked up.
"Not that I can see just yet." Kloe said. "We're definitely in a cave, which usually means that lifeforms will take shelter inside. Maybe it's like that walk a few months ago, Talis, remember? The one with the cave where there was a pool inside it with that creature?"
"What kind of creature?" Elei looked at his two superiors, clearly excited about the prospect of alternative life forms.
"It didn't speak our language, but it was mostly human, though with hooves instead of feet."
"And very hairy legs." Kloe added.
Talis smiled remembering the strange creature. What happened to it again? She swallowed as she remembered the larger amphibious creature that jumped out of the pool and swallowed it whole.
Best not to scare the two greeners.
"Let's keep our focus on the report." Talis took in a deep breath. The air is breathable, though it feels heavy."
"Like there's too much water in it." Sida added.
"Good." Talis responded. "What else? Use your senses." Talis walked to a stalagmite and touched it. "Feel this." She instructed the others.
Sida touched the stone. "It feels cold, and very wet. It's hard yet…" She trailed off as she grasped it harder. "There seems to be some sort of give to it."
"Almost like it's hollow on the inside." Kloe stated standing a ways off, grasping another of the protruding stones.
Talis took her bag off her back and opened a pocket on the front revealing a small semitransparent container and a pair of metallic forceps. "Sida, have you been taught how to take samples?"
The younger woman shook her head and Talis extended the forceps to her. Sida took them and reached for the top part of the stone.
"Nice and easy." Talis instructed. "You can use the tool to scrape or to pluck; it has a small blade on either side if you have a more difficult extraction."
Sida struggled for a moment with trying to grasp the tool and her fire Tatu glowed briefly. She bent over and got into a crouching position to get a better eye on the rock and plucked a small stone no bigger than a marble from the foundation. "Got it." Sida said with satisfaction, the light of her Tatu growing dimmer.
A sound echoed out from farther into the cavern and the four Netsu all turned their heads in its direction.
"You heard that, right?" Elei asked, a note of fear in his young voice.
"It appears we are not alone." Kloe stated as she burned both her Tatu brighter.
"We really need a lighter in here." Talis muttered.
"You mean someone with the Tatu of light?" Elei eyed Talis with a look of fear still present on his face. "I thought they weren't giving that one anymore?"
"They are." Talis countered, burning her Inspire just enough to touch Elei's emotions and calm him down. "It just hasn't been granted in some time. More of these missions have been about stealth lately; as such, newer recruits have been taking dark as a Tatu over light."
"I think it would suit you." Kloe stated matter-of-factly. "A leader should stand out, not blend in. Plus we could tie a string to you and drop you in dark holes when we go spelunking in caves like this."
Talis laughed and Kloe joined in. The greeners exchanged a look, not used to the repartee that Kloe and Talis had. Talis and Kloe had been on many missions now and seen so many worlds that for them it was impossible not to feel a sense of camaraderie that helped them in even the most dire of circumstances to add a bit of levity to the situation. Something that not many walkers had, as most took the path too seriously.
After the Oni stopped joining in on the walks and so many portals led to worlds of danger and disastrous results, the Netsu began to lose hope. The council still held out that the Walkers would find an inhabitable world, but with the ink supply dwindling, the devout of the religion of On threatening another crusade, the world was on the brink of collapse.
When all the world goes crazy, the sane go crazy right with it. Talis thought. It was easier and far more fun to her to keep up her humor rather than succumb to the woes of Erridium.
"What do you think, greeners? Should we investigate further?" Kloe peered over at Sida and Elei. Elei looked up from his notes and down the long corridor toward the location of the noise. He turned to Sida who nodded enthusiastically.
So young and full of vigor. Reminds me of when I was on my first mission.
Talis burned inspire. "A word of caution to you both. Kloe and I have been on many walks where we have met many creatures. Most are harmless, usually territorial when a strange creature gets into their habitat, yet will not attack."
"We have met a few that do." Kloe continued taking her side by Talis. "Those few are usually predatory animals and such. We have lost Netsu on some of those missions."
"If you sense danger, then use your Tatu." Talis tells them as they both look to their hands. "Frost and flame. You are both in contrast to each other, so remember to use that advantageously. If you get into a situation where you feel one would benefit, then use your Tatu to help, if you feel the other could use their expertise then call out to each other. Be prepared for a fight, but lead with peace."
"Watu." They both reply in unison.
Before the rise of Kutune, the Netsu worshiped the moon, which they called Watu. The Oni had the sun which they believed to be their God. They called him On, the one God. Talis found this to be a bit presumptuous especially for a celestial body. The Oni with their fair skin and hair would shine in the light of On and they would often attack the Netsu during the wars in the light of day, assuming On to be their ally.
The Netsu had the moon. Created by the forgotten God. Ancient Netsu texts written in the old language proclaimed that the Gods were many contrary to the beliefs of the Oni. The forgotten God, so the stories went, were created the Netsu, while Oni were created by On to be in His image. The forgotten God looked to protect His creation by distracting the Oni with Watu, the moon which radiated in the sky even in the darkest hours. The light of Watu would often illuminate strange markings on the ground that the Netsu would use as inspiration when they created their Tatu.
The power of the Tatu allowed the Netsu to have the upper hand in battles which ultimately proved to be the deciding factor in the old wars against the Oni and their religious crusades. It was a power that they did not fully understand, yet it was not in understanding that they could wield it. The Oni, on the other hand were not gifted with Tatu and found it would not work on their light skin.
After Kutune ascended and became godmade much of the Netsu religion was lost as Kutune destroyed many of the major cities. Part of that destruction included much of the religious texts, including the name of the forgotten God which was rarely spoken out of reverence to their creator. All that remained of the Netsu religion was Watu and the Tatu, their God's greatest gifts, that and the prophecy, a simple message found scrawled on the walls of a once proud church. The Tatu will save us in the end.
"Time to keep walking." Talis announced to the group as she signaled Kloe forward to lead the four into the darkness.
"Sida, you're a fire starter, right?" Kloe asked after a steps. Holding up her faint glowing weapons ahead of her, Kloe noticed the light was growing dimmer.
"Yes. I received it as my first Tatu when I was younger." Sida replied.
"How's your hold?"
"What?" Sida walked up beside Kloe, attempting to match her pace.
"How long can you hold your concentration of flame?" Kloe stated firmly. Kloe had always been direct. She would often speak directly and without pause. Even her questions seem like statements to Talis and the rest of the walkers Through it all, however, she is surprisingly patient. Talis figured that had more to do with being a parent than being a walker. Her daughter Sefina was a brilliant girl just a couple years shy of her first Tatu and Kloe often seemed to feel lost in her attempt to converse with the astute child.
"I'm better at short bursts than long burns." Sida told Kloe.
"Time to practice then. Do you mind if I give you some advice?" Kloe continues her long legged strides and the poor girl Sida could barely keep up. Talis smiled at the sight of it.
Kloe may not possess great intelligence, but I've always found her to be magnificently wise.
Sida nodded at Kloe. "Yes, please, any instruction would be helpful."
"Let's start with this. How does it feel when you light up your Tatu?" Kloe flared her spear just a bit brighter as she poked it into the ground, digging up a bit of rock and dirt in the process.
The young Sida scratched nervously at the marking on her left hand, a small triangle shape that crested toward her thumb to symbolize a wave, and an even smaller circle above that to symbolize On, the sun.
"Well?" Kloe prodded.
"Like anger." Sida began. "Like there's something inside of me that wants to break free, destroy all the problems we have, that I have, and put an end to our miserable lives on Erridium and create some place new."
"You think of fire as creation?" Talis asked, catching up with the two of them and siding next to Sida's right.
"In a way, yes," Sida started. "though probably not in the way most think of it."
"Maybe that's the key for you, Sida." Kloe ruled. "That part of you that wants to destroy, that's the burst. Anger is a fracture, though in the case of fire a vivid one. It comes from On. Never forget what He did to us, what he tries to do to us still. Use His gifts against him, that's where the slow burn comes in."
"Like revenge?" Sida's eyes opened as she looked up at Kloe.
"In a way, I suppose." Kloe said, shooting a glance at Talis as if to say, you sure about this one?
"It's a fine way to start," Talis began. "though if you let anger dominate your emotions you'll find that your emotions dominate you. You'll still be able to control your Tatu, though your soul may become Ruptured."
Sida gasped at the word while Elei stopped walking for a moment and looked up from his notes.
"What?" Sida said shocked.
"Is that how it happens?" Elei inquired. "Is that how a soul breaks?"
"We don't know." Kloe told them, not wanting to speak further on the subject. "It's just a theory the two of us have kicked around. Come on, we've got to keep moving."
They walk for a moment without words while Sida attempts to burn slowly with her Tatu when Elei breaks the silence. "Misia Talis, you've been on more walks than any living Netsu. Have you ever been on a world where you've met others with Tatu?"
"In a way, yes." Talis answered. The two greeners look at Talis with eyes pleading her to elaborate. She breathes in slowly and continues. "Most worlds we visit are desolate, some don't even have sustainable air or water. Every so often we find one, however that once held a civilization, like we did on my… what was it? Walk twenty five?"
Kloe met Talis's gaze and chimed in. "I'd say closer to forty."
"Sure, around then. I was on a walk with a different crew, before I met Kloe. They used to send about thirty of us at a time around then. A couple to go in first and scout, check the atmosphere, look for signs of life, make sure we could breathe, all that. If we got the all clear from them we'd go on in and check for the rest of the list. We'd split up in groups and check for fertile soil, sunlight for at least half the day, uninhabited and plenty of place for us to settle.
"On this walk we were checking off all the boxes nicely and everything was point to this becoming the newest planet for the Netsu and even the Oni."
"The Oni?" Elei looked surprised.
"They were still invested back then in the walks, though we always assumed it was more to prove us wrong than anything else.
"That or spread their religion to another universe." Kloe laughed.
"Possibly." Talis laughed with her friend. "We had a couple of Oni on the team, I forget their names, we called them the missionaries because they were always trying to preach the religion of On. Can't forget their faces though, what was left of them. You may have heard about when the teams got limited, it was just a couple years ago.
Everything happens so fast now, portals get opened, we pop in for air with a plant, if nothing is breathable for either us or the plant life we close it and get a new one. One of the missionaries on this walk though, she thought of something smart. She decided to check for non-organics in the ground. She had a theory that the plane we were on once held life, but that it had gone extinct.
"So we went back through the portal a week later and brought shovels for us to dig into the ground. The planet was fertile, it was breathable, it matched all our criteria but something about it just felt off. That something revealed itself when we started digging."
"The Oni was right. There was life there. Before." Sida whispered with understand.
Talis nodded with a grimace on her face as she recalled the events. "And we figured out what killed it too, after all it killed all but a few of us in the process. I had a shielder, a man named Rash, a nickname he got for often going with his gut without thinking. He protected me once it started. I think he had feelings for me, unfortunately he never got the chance to express them. You see the missionaries dug up spores that got released into the air which, when inhaled took root in our airways and caused our respiratory systems to blister, bleed, and quickly shut down. Essentially it was a living thing that we breathed in and tore us apart from the inside out.
"I say I remember the faces of the missionaries, that's because they were the first to die. It was a gruesome sight, their bodies seemed to shrivel and age right before us while they cried out for their God to save them. The rest of us ran to the portal. One of the missionaries grabbed my leg with his rotting hand and snapped my ankle. My bone was protruding from my leg. It was gruesome. Then Rash put up his shield around me in a sight I'd never seen before from his Tatu; a giant shining ball of energy that he pushed all the way to the portal."
"How many of you survived?" Sida says softly.
"Four, just me, Rewi unfortunately, and a couple others who left the walkers immediately. Supposedly, that was the reason for the smaller teams after that. Too dangerous to lose so many Netsu and even more so to lose so many of our kind with Tatu."
"I'd heard they used to let people bear four or five Tatu back then." Elei stated.
"It's true." Kloe said. "My first commander had shield and strength as well as inspire and blight."
"Hansu?" Talis asked.
Kloe smiled remembering him. "Good man. Lost him on a world with large desert creatures like dragons of myth. They came out of the oceans of sand and attacked us. He sacrificed himself to help us escape."
"Mala fools, getting themselves killed off when they have so many Tatu." Sida growled. "Why didn't he kill the creature?"
"There were about twenty of the things. Large beasts with rows of fangs. I watched as they tore his flesh apart. I can still smell the iron of his blood in the air when I think about that walk."
"The forgotten God protect us." Elei's trembling voice came out like a whimper as the group continued forward in silence for a moment longer.
"Ready to try out that burn, Sida?" Kloe asked as she felt her concentration fade.
"I suppose." Sida said with a touch of fear. Talis burned courage to sooth her.
"Alright, close your eyes. Let go of that anger you held before, piece by piece, forget the troubles of Erridium. Forget betrayals, heartaches, blunders, forget all of it. Clear your mind and focus instead on something that you care about. Find that person, that thing, that idea or belief, find what motivates you and hold to that."
Talis continued to burn her courage for Sida and flared up her inspire just a bit to help Kloe.
Kloe continued. "Now, think about what you would do to protect that thing you care about? What you would do to to ensure that thing survives even at the price of your own life? Now open your eyes and think blue."
Sida did as she was instructed and started her burn. It began as a small blue flame emitting from her left hand and began to grow into a bright flame that illuminated the entire chamber.
"I'm doing it!" Sida exclaimed.
The sound came once again from the cave a bit closer this time. Sida's fear grew rapidly and her blue flame burned a bright orange hue, growing out of control. From above a thousand eyes looked down, their vision blinded by the wild blaze.
"Extinguish it!" Talis barked.
"I'm trying!" Sida cried.
The eyes from above descended as hundreds of small creatures flew downwards with mouths open wide and hungry crying out in loud screeching horror.
Talis burned her courage with a bright red flare. "Kloe, shields up!"
Kloe couldn't react in time with her focus staying on Sida as one of the creatures landed atop her head and bit down with ravenous fangs. Kloe cried out in pain as the beast drew blood. Talis dropped her pack to the ground and reached for the blade on her belt as two more creatures landed on Kloe whose shields were waning.
"It's time to fight, use your Tatu!" Talis shouted at the other two, burning her Inspire as bright as she could.
Elei stood petrified and dropped his notes to the ground. "Come on, come on…" He whispered, staring at his left hand attempting to will his Tatu in order to join the fray.
Sida had no trouble as she redirected her flames to the plummeting brutes above, incinerating a dozen before they could attack her.
Kloe swatted at the beasts and managed to impale one with her weapon, she looked at it on the end of her spear. The creature was no more than an arms width in length. Its dark body was covered with a layer of hair except for the wings which looked to be made of some kind of skin. The thing that was the strangest about it was that it had small white eyes that looked like small lanterns, projecting a light wherever the thing would look.
"Mala, Talis!" Kloe shouted as she pulled the fiend off her spear and tossed it. "These things have lantern eyes!"
"Your turn to name something!" Talis responded with the same vocal intensity as she thrusted her sword toward the dark creature in front of her, missing wildly as the thing bit down on her right arm just above the elbow. Talis cried out in pain and decided to use her Air Tatu for the first time since going through the portal. Talis was still weary of using Air, its power was intense, like a blast of wind that could be used to propel you towards something or to push or pull an object or creature.
Talis extended her left arm out toward the beast with its fangs still imbedded into her right arm and flared up the Tatu which burned a bright yellow down from her left shoulder into her bicep. The fiend was blasted away as it cried out in pain and confusion before slamming into the cavern wall in a spray of misty red blood.
"I'm going with Baterns!" Kloe yelled, smiling with satisfaction as she deflected a group that pressed hard against her shield.
"Is this really the time for naming things?" Elei shouted as he managed to create an icicle in his hand which he used to stop a Batern from biting him.
"We're the first ones here, we get to name things!" Talis laughed. She angled both her palms downward and crouched lower to the ground. Most Netsu with the Air Tatu used it for the simple push and pull it could do, bringing objects and creatures closer or pushing them away. A truly accomplished and practiced user like Talis could do more, like flight. In a burst of dust like a circle around herself Talis took off into the air, extending her sword in front of herself she swept it horizontally in one fluid motion taking out three Baterns with one fell swoop of the bald.
The Baterns swarmed Kloe continuing their assault against her shield, many of them managing to get more bites into her skin around her shaved head. She cried out, "Elei, I could use some care!"
Elei shot out a spray of icicles which hit three of the Baterns near him and ran to Kloe, grasping her by the shoulder, his Tatu glowing green. Instantly Kloe's wounds closed up and she breathed in a sigh in relief. Elei felt his own life force drain slightly as he healed her, a side effect of his Tatu. He reached into his pack and grabbed a canteen, taking a swig before flaring his light once again and shooting off another barrage of icicles which took down a dozen creatures in its spray.
"Nice job, Elei!" Sida shouted as she threw small balls of fire at the Baterns.
The Baterns continued their assault with less coordination as they showed when they first descended, now erupting into a sea of chaos with lanterned eyes shining in all directions illuminating the dark cavern in a cacophony of light.
The growl was closer now, coming from deeper in the cavern. The Baterns shrieked as they retreated away from the group. Sida took out a few more with her flames as the creatures took flight. As the last Batern fell the cavern for a moment grew silent.
"Something scared them off." Elei observed as he placed his hands on Sida, healing the wounds on her arms from the fangs of the Baterns.
"Perhaps it's time to retreat. Whatever could scare them off must be worse than them." Kloe half-whispered to Talis.
"We've barely seen any of the world. It has to be more than just this cave." Talis responded.
Kloe looked worried as she felt the freshly healed wounds atop her head. "Vote?"
Talis sighed. "Elei, Sida. We have an opportunity here to continue forward and explore this plane or to retreat and try again on another world. What do you two think?"
Elei stood with his hands on his legs, panting. "You're asking us?"
"I don't run my team like some sort of tyrant. Everyone should have a voice and an opinion." Talis took upon herself a pose of regal posture.
Let them see that I can be their leader without using the Tatu to force them to do what I want.
"This is my first walk." Elei said. "I want to keep going. I'm still hoping that this is just a small part of a much larger world."
"And what do you plan to do on whatever could have frightened off those creatures? It would have to be a lot bigger and scarier than them." Sida asked the group with pleading eyes.
"Seems like we have a split vote so far." Talis began as she eyed the two greeners before looking to Kloe. "Kloe?"
The taller woman stood up and flared her strength, creating a bright blue spear in her right hand. "I'm ready to fight whatever's out there."
Hrrr… Came the sound down the corridor as if in response.
"How far away would you say that is?" Elei questioned as he looked in the direction of the sound.
"Only one way to find out." Talis said as she looked at the group. "Sida, I could use a dark walker. Do you feel up to a little scouting?"
Sida took her canteen out of her pack and swallowed a large gulp before answering. "I guess."
Talis looked at the rest. "You two stay here, we'll go up ahead and check it out, see if we can gather some information before either finding a way around the beast or slaying it. Kloe, did you bring a torch?"
Kloe dug in her pack and grabbed a tightly wrapped bundle of sticks and handed it to Talis. "This will only last about an hour before it burns away, so be conservative and only use it when necessary."
This could be a mistake. Talis thought as she looked down the passage noticing a small light glowing along the way. She kept her Inspire Tatu burning a low simmer as she and Sida walked away from Elei and Kloe, toward the corridor.